Darren Aronofsky’s masterful, metaphorical fever dream not for the faint of heart
By Nick Milligan
In Darren Aronofsky’s 2014 directorial effort, Noah, an odd and strangely entertaining Biblical epic, two themes loomed large: spirituality and the plight of our planet. This speaks to his interests. The ambitious 48-year-old filmmaker is an active environmentalist, once taking a well-publicised trip with Leonardo DiCaprio to cast an eye over Canada’s dastardly tar sand deposits, and he’s also voiced a fascination with Biblical stories. His adaptation of Noah, the famous tale of the man chosen by God to rescue all animals from the Great Flood, explicitly combined these two profound themes.
Now Aronofsky returns to said subject matter – and a whole lot more – with mother!, a dense and multi-layered allegorical construct packaged as a supernatural home invasion thriller. Mother, played by Jennifer Lawrence, lives in an historic home with her handsome and noticeably older husband, Him (no characters in the film are named), played by Javier Bardem. Him is a poet of some renown but is in a creative rut. His dutiful wife walks on eggshells around him, trying not to impede his creativity. Mother is also literally playing the role of homemaker, lovingly restoring and renovating the house they live in, which was previously destroyed in a fire before they met.
One night Man (Ed Harris) arrives, having been wrongly informed that their home is a bed and breakfast. But despite the confusion Him insists, much to Mother’s behest, that Man still stay for the night as a guest. The following day Man’s wife Woman (Michelle Pfeiffer) appears on the doorstep and Mother suddenly has two unwanted guests in her house. Woman is a handful – a heavy drinker and an incorrigible sticky beak.
There’s little point in revealing further plot details, because the narrative of mother! – if you could call it that – is entirely beside the point. The movie is not “plot-driven” in any traditional sense, but is instead a mysterious and dizzyingly crafted abstraction. The way that guests conduct themselves in the strikingly designed house (referred to early on as “paradise”) exists inside a heightened reality of pure dream logic, and is a wonderful representation of how it feels to be moving through a nightmare – or to be trapped in one. We also never leave this home, though we’re given glimpses of the lush meadow on which the house is situated. Aronofsky has also opted for no music (a full score was composed by Jóhann Jóhannsson, but he and Aronofsky ultimately decided that it detracted from the movie), though Patti Smith sings, quite tellingly, Skeeter Davis’ ‘The End of the World’ as the credits roll.
Unpacking the dense, speedy melodrama of mother!, with its fantastical heightened reality, is by no means an easy task. It’s multi-layered, unsettling and performed by the impressive cast (Kristen Wiig and Domhnall Gleeson also appear in fleeting supporting roles) with unwavering conviction. Knowing Aronofsky’s interest in environmentalism and religion may assist you in deciphering and interpreting the rapid-fire clues, especially towards the tail-end of the movie’s wild crescendo. Some moments are too big to miss, while others are subtle. There’s lots of avatars on screen, from Mother Nature to God, Adam, Eve, Cain and Abel.
Mother! is delivered with aplomb and reaffirms Aronofsky as a great modern auteurist. But because of its spectacular nature, the director has an uphill battle to make the film connect emotionally. For the most part it does, but it won’t resonate with every viewer. Because the characters are symbolic rather than human, and the film’s absurdist bent escalates rather sharply, it’s easy to become emotionally detached – to see it all as a great stunt. It’s an expertly crafted artifice, a carousel, with all its faux horses, that increases in speed until you’re thrown from the saddle. It’s a far cry from the inescapable and visceral gut-punches of Aronofsky’s other major films, like Requiem for a Dream (which also had a druggy dream-like quality) and The Wrestler. Aronfosky’s counting on grand, sweeping metaphors to move his audience, which is both ambitious and risky.
Noticeable themes aside, there’s even more going on in mother! than Aronofsky himself might be aware. In interviews for the film’s release he’s confirmed the aforementioned Biblical and environmental metaphors. But there’s something larger at work. Mother! is ultimately a very blunt and unwavering black comedy about the relationship between a Creator and their work, their audience and their loved ones. The movie explores Bardem’s struggles with inspiration (he doesn’t seem to find any in his caring young wife), but is quick to pick up a pen when praise is bestowed upon him by strangers. Vanity appears to be his creative sustenance. The hysteria of celebrity worship soon follows. Violence and destruction are presented as potential bi-products of both Creation and Fame. Bardem’s poet is capable of being a loving husband but is prone to raging narcissism. His written words cast a spell over those that read him, as does the work of writers in the real world – in Aronofsky’s world. As the director demonstrates in mother!, the written word is all-powerful: it can comfort strangers in their time of grief or rile them into armed conflict. Those lovers and loved ones in the periphery of explosive talent and dogged ambition can soon become collateral damage.
Mother!‘s depiction of the relationship between Creator and Muse is delivered with rather damning precision. It makes you wonder if Aronofsky, himself a Creator, is subconsciously apologising to past flames. Could there be something of the director in Bardem’s poet? Adding to all this intrigue is that Aronofsky has since started dating his lead actress, and the age gap between him and Lawrence is comparable to that of Mother and Him. Life imitating art, indeed.
Aronofsky’s infatuation is apparent in every frame, with Lawrence’s face appearing exclusively in medium close-ups or extreme close-ups, breaking only to show her point-of-view. Characters in the scene with her are sometimes talking directly to camera, or the frame hovers just over her shoulder. Lawrence’s natural beauty is key, of course, to Aronfosky’s Mother Nature premise. The filmmaker’s camera follows her throughout the large house in a gentle but striking opening sequence; Mother searching the home, dressed in a sheer, fitted cotton garment – a vision of purity. Everything goes drastically downhill from the moment Him appears on screen, spinning towards a conclusion that fits with Aronofsky’s over-arching concept but is ultimately a little too hokey. Brave, sure. But hokey as fuck.
Aronofsky has said that one of his major goals as a filmmaker is to give audiences something they haven’t experienced before. That should be music to the ears of anyone that has loudly maligned the cycle of reboots and rehashes that Hollywood uses to maintain its cash flow. It should buoy those of us suffering sequel and superhero fatigue. It’s heartening, too, that a major studio like Paramount Pictures took a $30m gamble to bring mother! to fruition, clearly placing stock in Lawrence’s broad appeal and Aronofsky’s cult status amongst discerning cinephiles. The film stands to lose money – perhaps it always did. But the mostly negative public reaction to mother! – the unwillingness to submit to its originality – perhaps says a great deal about where our heart truly lies. It’s counter-productive to complain of blandness and then spit when things get spicy.